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Forget Pearl Harbor, Abe should go to Nanjing

If the two largest economies of Asia are at daggers drawn, the consequences cannot be conducive to peace and prosperity. Japan has to take steps to assuage the wounds of the past with China.

On Saturday, May 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met on the site of the Battle of Verdun to commemorate its hundredth anniversary. They were accompanied by 3,000 schoolchildren, half French, half German. As Dr Merkel commented, the meeting highlighted the degree of trust and cooperation between the two neighbours. There are many things to worry about in Europe today, but conflict between France and Germany is not one of them. Nor, even in a Brexit scenario, is it imaginable that Britain and Germany would engage in conflict.

The Atlantic is at peace. What a contrast with the Asia-Pacific.

As tensions between Japan and its neighbours, especially China, but also very much Korea, continue to simmer - over territory, over history and over political rhetoric - the Asia-Pacific is clearly not at peace; it is far more in a "pre-war" than a "post-war" ethos. This is extremely dangerous; the region is a tinderbox and a loose spark could cause a major conflagration.

On the occasion of US President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima, he commented on how this marked a strengthening of the US-Japan bilateral relationship.

Though it did not include an apology, there have been suggestions that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should reciprocate by paying a visit to Pearl Harbor. It would indeed be a good symbolic gesture. But the US-Japan relationship is not a cause of geopolitical concern. Even at the height of the US-Japan trade friction in the 1980s, when there was "Japan-bashing" in the United States and open contempt for the US (kenbei in Japanese) in Japan, there was never even a remote risk that it would degenerate into conflict.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Indeed, the current US-Japan relationship conforms to a historical pattern that stretches back to the mid/late 19th century. As the Western imperialist powers advanced across the East, notably the two Opium Wars (1839 and 1857), the Japanese leadership decided that since they were not going to be able to beat the West, their only option was to join the West.

This was encapsulated in the slogan Datsu-A/Nyu-O (Leave Asia/Enter the West). In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan underwent massive and profound reforms that involved a great deal of borrowing from the West: principally Great Britain, but also France, Germany and the US, and some from Italy, namely most of the countries that today constitute the Group of Seven (G-7).

Japan's relations with the Western powers were consolidated by a series of formal alliances. The first formal Western ally of Japan was Imperial Britain from 1902 to 1922 - the reunion, as pundits stated at the time, of the empire over which the sun never sets with the empire of the rising sun!

Thus, though both Japan and China fought on the side of the allies in World War I, Japan's status as the United Kingdom's ally and hence a "big power" allowed it to have former German concessions in China transferred to Japan, rather than returned to Chinese sovereignty, much to the vociferous opposition of China, leading to a nationalist uprising known as the May 4th Movement.

As Japanese politics in the 1930s veered to militarism, as it invaded China, and as relations with the US and UK deteriorated, Japan joined the Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, at the outbreak of World War II, focusing its military activities on Asia and especially against China.

With defeat in World War II quickly followed by Liberation in China, Japan by the early 1950s was quickly transformed from the US' erstwhile hated enemy to its pampered protege. A security alliance was signed between the two countries in 1952, which is seemingly still going strong.

JAPAN-CHINA TIES

These alliances with the West helped project Japan's power in the East, especially vis-a-vis China. After World War II, in contrast to the situation with Germany in Europe, there was no attempt at evoking a Japanese apology to and reconciliation with China. Indeed, Japan actively participated in the policy of ostracising the People's Republic of China by recognising Taipei's Republic of China as the legitimate government through bilateral diplomatic relations and by depriving Beijing of its rightful seat at the United Nations Security Council.

A peace treaty and the restoration of full diplomatic relations with China did not come about until October 1978, more than 30 years after the official end of the war.

Furthermore, the restoration of official ties did not result from a Japanese initiative, but only after a Washington green light was given with Richard Nixon's historic meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972.

In the ensuing decades, though there were occasional tentative steps towards a Sino-Japanese rapprochement, in general the atmosphere continued to be poisoned through both Japanese national developments and external policies.

Among myriad examples of insensitive provocation: the then governor of Tokyo, Mr Shintaro Ishihara, claimed the Nanjing massacre had not happened - imagine the mayor of Berlin denying the existence of Auschwitz; history textbooks underwent frequent revisionist changes aimed at toning down Japan's imperialist activities and atrocities; there were official visits to the war memorial Yasukuni Shrine, notably by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but also, in 2013, by current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Indeed, the hosting of the recent G-7 summit in Ise was itself if not a provocation, at the very least insensitive. The Ise Shrine is the grand temple of the nativist Shinto, the state religion that pre-war Japanese political and military leaders used as a tool of aggression and oppression.

Japan's insensitivity to its Asian neighbours can also be illustrated by the ceremony in Hiroshima.

Though commemoration was made of the Japanese war dead, Mr Abe failed even to mention that there were also some 50,000 Koreans (indentured/slave labour) who perished in Hiroshima (and another 20,000 in Nagasaki).

Japan's close relationship with the US is not only at the expense of Asians, China in particular, but also some of its own people.

In accordance with Japan's military alliance with the US - under which Japan enjoys the protection of the American nuclear umbrella - there are some 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan. They are overwhelmingly in Okinawa. The American bases are deeply unpopular there. Even more unpopular is the mandated move of the base from its current location to a new location, Henoko, a nature preserve. As Okinawans are not perceived as "truly" Japanese, their wishes are ignored and their rights trampled on.

VISCERAL TIES WITH THE WEST

Japan's visceral acting in cahoots with the West, principally its US ally, with the objective of excluding China, can be seen from a number of recent developments. Although virtually all the US' allies, both Western and Asian, willingly accepted to become founding members of the Chinese-established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Japan refused.

It has, on the other hand, been a very enthusiastic member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which not only excludes China, but is primarily a geopolitical tool aimed at China - in the words of the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, it is like providing an extra aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, Japan has shown no desire to participate in China's ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative.

At the recent G-7 summit in Ise, at the behest of Tokyo, a communique was issued with reference to the South and East China Sea disputes stressing the imperative of maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law.

All of the G-7 nations, to greater or lesser extents, with Japan the greatest, participated in the plunder of China in the late 19th/first half of 20th centuries without any regard to principles of international law, just raw power. This is not to say that, therefore, China is entitled to lawlessness, but a bit of introspection and apology on the part of the G-7 powers would have been welcomed.

The Asia-Pacific is not at war, but nor is it in peace. Tensions are high; distrust and suspicion prevail. To a considerable extent, this arises from China's rise to great global power status. All rising great powers throughout history have caused disruption and havoc. China is no exception. Efforts should be directed at seeking to minimise the havoc.

This includes in particular addressing and assuaging grievances from the past. In this global age where Asia clearly is becoming a far more dominant force, it is time for Japan to "re-enter" Asia.

And, especially, it should make peace with China. If the two largest economies of Asia are at daggers drawn, the consequences cannot be conducive to peace and prosperity. There can be no doubt whatsoever that Japan was the aggressor and China the victim.

Whether Mr Abe should or should not go to Pearl Harbor to make amends is a bit irrelevant. That is not where the powder keg is.

Where Mr Abe should go, and urgently, is to Nanjing. Next year, 2017, will mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre, when over a period of six weeks in late 1937, troops of Imperial Japan killed hundreds of thousands of people and raped an estimated 20,000 women. The wounds have far from healed; they continue to fester.

By Mr Abe visiting Nanjing and paying homage to those who were killed, brutalised and raped, Japan would be taking one giant step to peace in the Asia-Pacific. The alternative is what we have now; it is not sustainable.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'Forget Pearl Harbor, Abe should go to Nanjing'. Print Edition | Subscribe